Human Rights Education: The UZ Experience

Mario Paul Luna, OIC-Community Extension Services University of Zamboanga, Director, Philippines

Human rights, is innate in every individual. But people whether by reason of ignorance or indifference, or maybe cultural relativity, neglect the fact that each has to exercise it, and likewise respect the rights that are due to each human being. The best way to battle, ignorance, indifference, or cultural relativity is education. This is the path, the strategy, and the endeavor that the Universidad de Zamboanga (UZ) through the Office of the Community Extension Services (CES) has taken to advocate the human right cause as a Center for Human Rights Education in the Western Mindanao Region. 

The Universidad de Zamboanga as the first and only center for Human Rights Education in Region IX exercises its role in building a culture of human rights by first and foremost incorporating Human Rights Education in the curriculum, particularly in the National Service Training Program (NSTP). The NSTP is a course subject which enrolls freshmen students taking up baccalaureate and technical/vocational courses. Its goal is to inculcate patriotism, civic consciousness and responsible citizenship. This program aims to develop the youth in a holistic fashion, thereby recognizing the youth’s vital role in building the nation. NSTP is divided into three components namely: the Reserved Officer Training Course which is designed to provide military training for tertiary students in order to prepare them for national defense; the second components is the Literacy Training Services (LTS) which is programmed to train students to become teachers of literacy and numeracy skills to school children, out of school youth, and other segments of the society; and the last component is the Civic Welfare Training Service (CWTS) which refers to a program of activities which contributes to the general welfare relative to the improvement of health, education, environment, entrepreneurship, safety, recreation and morals of the citizenry. Students are required to only enroll in one component and so they are allowed to choose the component where they wish to enroll.

Only the last two components, CWTS and LTS are offered in the university considering the number of students interested in enrolling in these components. Human Rights education is incorporated in both components.

The NSTP Coordinator, who heads the department, initiated and spearheaded the integration of human rights education in the classroom instruction during the second semester, months after the launching of UZ as a Center for Human Rights Education in the region. Considering UZ’s infantile stage in its human rights endeavor, the teacher realized that as he went on to discuss and share his knowledge on the subject matter, the more he become conscious about how much more he needs to learn about human rights himself. And as the discussion peaks up students get more interested as they convey their thoughts and raise questions. The realization of the teacher and the apparent inclination of the learners towards the issues indicate that Human Rights can indeed become a culture within the UZ community of learners and teachers and that progress is not far from being a reality.

The topics discussed include the Human Rights declaration as agreed upon by the United Nations, its importance, its relevance to a country’s development, and to the community’s way of life, and how it contributes to the general welfare when exercised and how it can cause anxiety and trouble when abused. Then, each article is discussed in the class reinforced with examples of actual cases, current events, and personal experiences. Some of the situations shared in the class include the observation of children that were not able to go to school and finish elementary school due to poverty. Instead of going to school, children help their parents do simple jobs to earn for daily family needs.

Some students shared their experience of having relatives who are forced to go abroad to seek for a “greener pasture”. And yet, from time to time they hear sad stories in the news about abused Filipinas in the Middle East and in neighboring countries. Some ladies are accordingly locked up in homes or end up in brothels, and experience many sorts of human rights abuses.

The teacher mentioned about the case of a student activist in the National Capital Region who has gone missing. It was mentioned that he was very vocal about the corrupt practices of the government.

The insurgency that has been hounding the island of Mindanao hindering thereby economic growth and political stability was also discussed. It was raised that religious issues has become a political conflict. But it was clarified that the reason for the conflict was really about the land that the minorities were trying to exercise authority over being an ancestral domain. During the class discussion it has been resolved that everyone regardless of culture, creed, or background, can live in harmony under a lawful leadership so long as each one would respect the rights of others. The teacher cited the example of a classroom situation where educated individuals seeking knowledge and understanding are able to co-exist in spite of the difference in dialect, ethnicity, family background, disposition on issues, and others. He pointed out that while the class was discussing the sensitive issues no one needed to hurt anyone even when they do not disagree on some points. This means that we can have peace in Mindanao if only we exercise the same prudence we are exercising in the classroom.

In all the issues raised, the students have a word to say. They were unanimous in expressing dismay over the violations committed against the human rights and how it affects the society they live in. They also share the same mind in saying that much of the human rights violations can be corrected if poverty will be eradicated and the quality of education strengthened. The students also came to the conclusion that they play a vital and they have the moral responsibility to exercise, promote, and share the culture of human rights in their respective communities to effect the progressive change that they would like to achieve.

During the discussion, the class was observed by visitors from the Amnesty International Program (AIP), an organization that advocates for Human Rights. Some of them where foreigners from Malaysia, some were from Manila, the National Capital Region, and the rest were from Zamboanga City. After the class discussion the visitors were given the opportunity to ask questions about the school activities relative to Human Rights. The teacher answered the questions which were mostly asked by our friends from Malaysia as truthful as possible. Afterwards, they said that they appreciate our system of government here because we are able to discuss a lot about issues in human rights. They said that in Malaysia, they don’t get to talk about a lot of things about or against the government, even the media, without the consent of the government who always monitors their actions.

The teacher thought about it is ironic considering that Malaysia is, to his own opinion, economically ahead of the Philippines. As he continued on explaining about the activities of the school in advocating human rights and its integration in the curriculum, he made mention that even when the topic is not about human rights or peace education, both are still part of the lesson and that they are incorporated in almost all of the subject matters in the NSTP. Say for instance, students are allowed to share their thoughts about religion. The people from Manila and Malaysia was surprised upon learning that we talk about such issue in the school thinking that it is quite difficult to handle such sensitive issues during classroom discussions. But an issue, if within the context of the subject matter is left hanging, might lead to misunderstandings and later lead to conflicts, when in fact, a classroom instruction should lead to an agreement and a resolution that would be favorable to the general wellbeing. After all, the classroom is the right place to share insights, reason out, and learn new ideas which could be applied in their daily life. This is where formal education takes place and it would be the students right to gain every bit of knowledge he gets from the four walls of this room.

An instance where the teacher tackles the issue on religion is when somebody asks “which religion can be considered the true religion”. This is indeed a sensitive issue to tackle. To think that people get to fight and even wage war in the name of religion. But dialogue is important if peace is to be achieved. All parties from the different beliefs must come forth and share their thoughts that should lead to a pledge of peace. If not this could lead to more conflicts as experienced in Mindanao where innocent civilians become the victims as they get caught in a fray of bloody conflicts. But if education is to play a vital role in the advancement of peace, in the progression of human rights culture, then things should be settled in the classroom and agreed upon every individual who will play a significant part in the process of developing a culture of peace and respect for human rights in the very community they live in, just right out of the very classroom where they have learned the beauty of living in peace and harmony.

So the teacher handles the discussion by asking each of the students how well they have exercised their faith, like for instance, “how many times have they prayed, how many times have they gone to their place of worship, how consistent where they in following their system of belief?”As students answer, each finds out that somehow none has perfectly carried out their task in exercising their belief, their faith, and their religion as consistent as they should be. And so the teacher explains that each individual have their own belief, even those who allege they do not believe in the existence of a Supreme Being, the Creator, God, still believes on something. And that even the act of not believing is already their belief, which leads to a system of belief, a religion. Each individual, except for a few, would always defend his/her faith whatever happens. This means that nobody can easily impose his/her belief on another, especially if you have not shown yourself as a good example of your faith to others. It would be better to try exercising your faith as zealously as possible; the way it should be and let others see the beauty of your religion through your actions so that other may say that, “their religion indeed is desirable.”Rather than debate or argue on something that cannot be concluded nor agree upon, let us learn to respect each other’s belief. Reflecting that as we share our thoughts and as we listen to other people’s thoughts about their beliefs, there is nothing wrong if we learn together bearing in mind that learning itself should  be acquired without coercion, but with a free will. After all we have our rights, and the freedom of religion is one of them. To acquire education is likewise a right. And as an individual exercise his/her rights, he/she has to realize that it is also required of him/her to respect the right of others, just as he/she wants his/her rights respected. As educated individuals we have to learn each other’s culture and differences. As we learn, we come to understand, and by understanding we become considerate and respect each other’s differences, and in the process we get to co-exist in peace being responsible citizens of the nation.

The topic in this discussion is about social awareness, cultural differences, and social responsibility. Human rights and peace education was not really the subject matter, but it was definitely incorporated in the topic with substance.

However, as mentioned earlier, so much needs to be learned by UZ’s teachers especially on the area of human rights.  As an immediate response to this pressing need, the NSTP Coordinator requested AIP for an orientation on Human Rights which was consequently conducted on March of 2010 which catered to all NSTP faculty members and Human Rights volunteers.

The office of the Community of Extension Services spearheaded by the OIC-Director, who happens to be the NSTP Coordinator, is planning to expand our advocacy by conducting Human Rights information drives in the communities and in schools. We also intend to establish other centers for Human Rights education in the different provinces and municipalities in the region.

Hopefully, our office can get some funding from interested partners to augment our limited resources to advance our endeavor of advocating the Human Rights cause not only in the region, but in the entire Mindanao.

Presently, we are concentrating our efforts on the students through classroom instruction. It is our belief that the youth can do a lot to help our nation. And they can do a lot to cause a wave of human rights culture in our country. Recognizing their idealism, it is very vital to set the foundation for this strong reckoning force, a vigorous pool of human resources, in preparing them as we pave their way in becoming productive citizens building a future of peace and respect for individual rights.

Our national hero, Jose Rizal, once said, “The youth is the hope of the Fatherland”.  Let them be our vibrant ambassadors of human rights and peace.